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Law teams integral part of military action; 'Great soldiers serving great soldiers'

Members of the brigade operational law team (BOLT) that deployed to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Fort Riley, Kan. Submitted photo1 / 4
Brigade headquarters on the Forward Operating Base Falcon in Iraq. Submitted photo2 / 4
Legal team leader Major Keven Kercher, left, and Captain Bill Johnson, subordinate attorney, are pictured at Forward Operating Base. The fire in the background is a pipeline that either caught fire accidentally or was set on fire by terrorists. Submitted photo3 / 4
The streets of Baghdad during the course of the fighting. Submitted photo4 / 4

As a military attorney with a tour of duty in Iraq, Keven Kercher feels compelled to share his experiences in an effort to create awareness about the significant, gratifying, and oftentimes challenging roles legal teams play as part of U.S. Army mission. The complexity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan require not only the professionalism and selfless service of the incredible service members on the front lines but also the commitment and dedication of a long line of occupational specialists within their ranks.

After graduating in 1990 from West Fargo High School, Kercher started his military connection by accepting a congressional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., from Senator Bryon Dorgan.

Graduating from the academy in 1994, Kercher spent the next five years of his military career as a combat engineer before deciding to shift career paths. "The Army has this unique program where you can switch from your current job specialty to a military lawyer position," he said, "So I took advantage of it, and was fortunate to be one of the few officers selected to attend law school." Wanting to maintain his N.D. roots, Keven completed his three years of legal training at the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks, before taking and passing his North Dakota Bar exam."We always tried to give the best legal assistance possible. This assistance was a big part of the paralegals role - counseling soldiers one-on-one, figuring out their problems, building them up, and trying to keep the solder's heads in the game, instead of having to worry about their legal problems back home."This strategy played a big role in maintaining morale and relationships, points really driven home, Kercher said, when a soldier would come up to him and say - "Hey sir, thanks, your legal team just saved my marriage."

"Dealing with military justice violations was of reduced concern, as compared to home station misconduct problems," Kercher said. "We didn't have as many issues, and besides there was no place for it. Because of the intensity of the fighting the soldiers were more focused. Some misconduct incidents occurred but commanders preferred to try to get the soldiers help instead of seeking legal action, unless the circumstances warranted otherwise."

Addressing claims from Iraqi citizens was a high-priority undertaking for the legal team and described by Kercher as "the biggest way the legal team could influence the battle. We controlled the claims "coffers" and had all sorts of financial caps as to what we could pay Iraqis for their injuries or damaged property." During the 15 months, the team processed nearly 450 claims.

According to Kercher, the most difficult part of the claims process was trying to determine what a legitimate claim was worth and how much to pay. For example, a broken leg might be worth $2000. "It was kind of tough for us," Kercher said. "Trying to assess what an injury or loss of life was worth was no easy task - especially when you considered what a claim payment might be back in the U.S. We felt like we were throwing a little bit of money at the problem, yet most of the locals were happy with the amount. Some would shake my hand or give me a hug and I would sit there in disbelief."

Kercher said he didn't expect these payments to be viewed so positively, surmising that some of these citizens may have utilized the money to help finance a trip to Syria in search of a new beginning, to escape all the fighting and bloodshed.

As far as internal investigations into soldier and unit actions, Kercher said new investigations were initiated almost daily. The legal team's duty was to oversee the process, which could focus on a number of topics including the events surrounding a soldier killed in action or an unfortunate case of fratricide. The team processed over 350 investigations.

Kercher said the goal of most of the investigations was not to get people into trouble but rather to capture as many facts as possible about what actually happened. The investigating officer would present the findings, along with a recommendation about how to correct the problem, to the commanding officer to make the final decision.

As for handling detainees, rules were set up according to international law and Army regulations, which established evidentiary standards for holding detainees for further interrogation or possible prosecution.

Actions pertaining to law of war and rules of engagement and what was and wasn't allowed became a more complex issue because of the time sensitivity, requiring an immediate response in life and death situations.

On several occasions we'd hear "hey we've got this going on now, and we would have a few seconds to come back with a gut feeling," Kercher said. "Even in a firefight, a commander would call back and say 'insurgents are setting tires on fire to create an obstacle and people are bringing out more tires for the fire, can we engage these people with our weapons.' Or we'd get a call saying, 'this guy has a cell phone and we think he might be calling his trigger man for an IED. Can we shoot him if all he has is a cell phone? " Trying to determine if a civilian is involved in a hostile act is no easy job, especially when insurgents blend into the populace.

He said it was moments like this that provided a real awakening regarding the legal complexity of the individual circumstances soldiers faced and the specialized role robust legal team's now play in accomplishing the unit's mission.

On that note, he said he is proud of his law team's contributions during their 15 months in Iraq - great soldiers serving great soldiers. He feels fortunate to be involved in a little piece of history in the making that will be documented for all to read and hear about for years to come.

Additionally, he would be remiss if he did not take a moment to thank his wife Sara, and his daughters Brianna (5) and Megan (10) for all of their love and support over those long months. Somehow Sara found the strength and courage to keep the family going in his absence. The sacrifices that all service members' families make are truly unbelievable, Kercher emphasized.

With a total of 15 years in the military, Kercher is now intent upon completing his educational endeavors in Leavenworth through June of 2010, before heading to a new location and new duties.

With the input of his wife and daughters, he is putting together their 'dream' list of preferred choices for possible positions and destinations. "The Army does try to get you to a location where you'd like to go or a job you like to do if possible - of course, Uncle Sam always gets the final decision."

Keven and Sara still maintain strong West Fargo ties with his mom and dad, Edsel and Rae Kercher, longtime West Fargo residents and retired educators, still making their home in the community; and Sara's parents, John and Sharyn Melting, living in Fargo. Keven and Sara also have brothers and their families living in both the West Fargo and Fargo areas.

His first assignment as a military lawyer or "judge advocate" as the Army calls them, was at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He served at Fort "Wood" for three years before moving onto a year at the Judge Advocate General (JAG) School in Charlottesville, Va., where he earned his masters degree in military law.

Then it was on to Fort Riley, Ka., for three years as a legal advisor to two combat brigades. It was during this time that Kercher deployed to Iraq from February 2007 to April 2008. After the deployment, he returned to Fort Riley and completed another year as a brigade legal advisor. He and his family then "moved down the street" to Fort Leavenworth, Ka., where he is currently attending Command and General Staff College. In a nutshell, he is "getting up to speed" on strategic level thinking before he heads out to be "part of a higher-level staff where he will advise top level commanders on legal issues pertaining to anything and everything that presents itself to them."

Kercher deployed to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Riley, Ka., as part of the presidential surge of forces in 2007. Each combat brigade, consisting of about 3500 soldiers, had a "brigade operational law team" (BOLT), consisting of two attorneys, a senior paralegal, and six other paralegals responsible for all the brigade's legal missions, with Kercher heading up the team.

  Throughout the deployment, the brigade operated specifically in Southern Baghdad, with their physical location on Forward Operating Base Falcon - a two-by- three mile square military installation surrounded by protective walls and guard towers.

From the start, the brigade's mission was to locate terrorist cells that were functioning in Southern Bagdad and remove them, relying on locals providing information about where Al Qaida was hiding and the whereabouts of weapons they were storing.

Beyond achieving this mission, the brigade's other goal was to move forward with the intent of helping provide security and stability for their portion of the city so the Iraqi citizens could function independently through the realization of necessary services (i.e. police force, water treatment, and a variety of other essential services that would protect and provide for the local population once the American forces returned home.)

Not a quick or easy process, as the 4th Brigade was soon to find out. Firefights were so constant, Kercher said his brigade experienced over 500 significant events in a month alone. "Everyone was living in danger. Hearing enemy rockets fly overhead, avoiding incoming mortar rounds, and running for bunkers was a daily occurrence for a while on the operating base. After about four or five months of high intensity conflict, the fighting calmed down a little, but the brigade soldiers would continue to experience engagements and firefights for the remainder of the deployment."

During the deployment, the brigade suffered the deaths of 80 soldiers killed in action, while 700 others were wounded, with most of these returning to the fight.

Throughout their 15 months in Iraq, the assistance provided by the legal team was vital and covered a wide gamut of issues and situations from international law problems to family law issues. Prosecuting soldiers for violations of military law fell under this purview, as did dealing with foreign claims against the U.S. forces; reviewing all of the brigade's contracts and fiscal programs (expenditures of $241 million); processing all of the brigade's internal investigations from fratricide to lost equipment; reviewing the supporting documents for over 2000 detainees; and advising the command on a wide range of rules of engagement issues.

For example, Kercher's team drafted over 1800 powers of attorney, which he noted were commonplace because soldiers obviously could not predict all of the legal issues their families would face during the soldiers 15-month absence. "Something as simple as registering a vehicle or selling a house takes on a whole new meaning if two signatures are required and only one of the signature holders is present," Kercher explained. "Soldiers often take these basic legal actions for granted when they are at home, but when they deploy, someone has to keep life's requirements moving along. The power of attorney gave a spouse, a family member, or a friend the permission to take up that slack."

On the divorce front, Kercher said a good percentage of his team's divorce cases were tied to the length of deployment. "Being away for 15 months and being deployed two to three times can take its toll," Kercher said.